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Monday, 29 August 1994
Page: 526


Senator ELLISON (7.20 p.m.) —I rise to speak in relation to the recent report by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force. Firstly, I wish to place on record my thanks to the committee secretariat for their hard work on this most complex issue. I also wish to thank my fellow senators on that committee for the valuable contributions they made during the course of this inquiry. Also, I do not think I could overlook the openness with which the navy approached this inquiry and the complete assistance and cooperation it gave.

  One of the terms of reference was to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and various other matters on the HMAS Swan. These allegations arose out of incidents which occurred during a tour of duty in 1992. The most notorious allegation was that of a sexual assault on the ship's doctor by a fellow officer. As the incident took place overseas, civil authorities did not have jurisdiction and, therefore, a court martial ensued.

  The committee investigated the handling of the matter by the navy and also whether the court martial was an appropriate course of action to take. The committee found no impropriety in the way that investigations were handled. However, in hindsight, in such a process there would have been much to gain from input of experienced civilian police officers. Of course, the court martial was held and the officer concerned was acquitted. It was at the conclusion of this that a board of inquiry was conducted by the navy into wide ranging matters dealing with the crew's behaviour on the HMAS Swan.

  At all stages the ship's doctor, who made the complaint that I previously mentioned, was provided with top level legal representation by the navy. The bill for this has exceeded $100,000, and I believe that that is a most important point to bear in mind in the way that the navy has behaved throughout.

  The first witness at the board of inquiry was Captain Mole from HMAS Swan. He was given a matter of some hour's notice and, in the absence of appropriate advice as to what might befall him, initially declined legal representation. I believe that in the circumstances Captain Mole's case might not have been put as adequately as it otherwise might have been. In relation to the situation regarding Captain Mole, the committee recommended a review of his censure—and I note that comments have been made in relation to this by my friend Senator Teague, who was on the committee, and Senator Macdonald; I support those remarks wholeheartedly.

  During the course of the inquiry, it became apparent that the integration of women into the navy was, indeed, a quantum leap in policy. Perhaps it was not accompanied by the preparation that one would expect in relation to such a leap forward. In recent years the navy has taken positive steps to address any problems of sexual harassment. Firstly, a 008 help line has been provided to take care of any confidential calls. Anyone who feels aggrieved by any inappropriate behaviour can make use of that.

  Furthermore, the navy has implemented a good working relationship program dealing with issues such as gender bias and sexual harassment. The committee experienced this program first-hand, and I compliment the navy on its implementation. In fact, the other services in the ADF could do well to follow such a program. I note that the navy implemented this program after obtaining detailed advice from a private consultant.

  However, this whole affair serves as a lesson not just to the ADF as to sexual harassment generally but to the wider community and employers at large. Sexual harassment is indeed a serious matter: it is serious to the person who is being harassed; it is serious to the employer because it directly affects performance in employment and could well affect production; and in the navy, of course, it goes directly to team spirit and morale.

  Whilst looking at the question of sexual harassment, the committee had cause to look at the Sexual Discrimination Act. There is an aspect of confusion, I believe, in relation to what constitutes `sexual harassment'. The act was introduced in 1984 and was subsequently amended in 1992. Section 28(3) involves a somewhat subjective test whereby a person concerned has to anticipate, to some extent, that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by that behaviour. In other words, we have to put ourselves in the place of the other person and anticipate whether they will feel in some way harassed. That, of course, is indeed a subjective test.

  A woman might walk past a building site and a labourer on that site might give her a wolf whistle. Of course, the woman concerned might be somewhat sensitive to that and feel somewhat intimidated. But some women, on the other hand, might feel that it is a compliment. I believe that this aspect needs to be looked at. I do not believe the section as it stands is as clear as it could be and I believe that, during the course of the inquiry, this aspect came to the fore. If the matter is to be clarified, a good starting point would be an amendment of the section to which I have just referred.

  The navy, unlike most employers, has indeed a difficult workplace to administer. The committee spent a day on the HMAS Swan. It is a destroyer escort; it is not a large ship, by any standards, and has cramped conditions. Both male and female personnel have to work under these conditions. One aspect that came to light was that the boiler room was extremely noisy, very hot and very cramped. The navy has a `no touch' rule. What exercised our minds was how the navy could run such a rule by the book in such cramped quarters where, to make ourselves heard by other crew members, we virtually had to stand right next to them and yell into their ears. It became apparent during the hearing that this was a common practice and, whilst the ship was in a heaving ocean, one could well imagine that the `no touch' rule could quite innocently be breached.

  Nonetheless, I compliment the navy on its attempts to deal with such a difficult environment. It concedes that sexual harassment is a very important matter to be addressed, and it was one that the committee made various recommendations on. In fact, the committee made some 40 recommendations on this aspect. It recommended that the navy provide even more training to address this problem.

  One of the recommendations that I found particularly attractive was that more emphasis should be placed on trying to resolve sexual harassment allegations at an informal level between the parties concerned. This is well before considering the option of tribunals or lawyers or running into lengthy cases which might entail compensation. Having said that, I do not downplay the effect that sexual harassment could have on the individual and the workplace. But I do believe that, as a starting point, that is a commonsense approach. During the course of this inquiry, I believe that the committee came to that view as well.

  I commend the report to the Senate. I believe that it is a report which will serve the Senate, the parliament and this country for some years to come and could be looked upon as somewhat of a beacon in relation to the treatment of sexual harassment in the workplace.